Music & Lyrics: Sting
Book: Lorne Campbell
Musical Director: Richard John
Director: Lorne Campbell
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Sting’s musical The Last Ship premiered in 2014 in Chicago before transferring to Broadway. A passion project for Sting who was born and raised in Wallsend, Newcastle – the heartland of the shipbuilding industry, an original story of the decline of British industry set on Tyneside was always going to be a tough sell to Americans. And so despite being nominated for two Tony Awards, it closed after three months on Broadway. Apart from a few minor productions, The Last Ship seemed to have sunk. However last year it was announced that the show would be dredged up and set sail on a tour of the UK. This certainly seemed more sensible and due to being produced by Northern Stage, the tour has launched in the show’s homeland: Newcastle upon Tyne.
Set against a background of a fictional shipyard being threatened with closure due to cheaper overseas alternatives, this part of the story is grounded in fact. Like the miner’s strike in Billy Elliot, this leads to tension and drama within the community although unlike Billy Elliot, The Last Ship has this conflict central to the plot as foreman Jackie White (Joe McGann) struggles to hold his life and workers together when the axe falls on their workplace. Alongside this is the story of Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) returning home after 17 years at sea to reconnect with his childhood sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee) and discovering he has a teenaged daughter Ellen (Katie Moore).
The cast are all excellent. McNamee is a standout as the proud and headstrong Meg: in a role that could have been rather unsympathetic, she imbues heart and truth into her performance while also displaying very strong vocals. Fleeshman also acts extremely well as Gideon and although he also displays a good voice, whenever he sings he seems to be vocally channelling Sting – something that remains mildly distracting throughout the show. McGann brings his usual stoicism to the role of Jackie and has wonderful chemistry with Charlie Hardwick, giving a lovely, sincere performance as his wife Peggy. Shining in the supporting roles of a trio of archetypal North Eastern men are Joe Caffrey as Billy the shop steward, Charlie Richmond as literature-quoting Adrian, and Kevin Wathen as the tough Davey. The biggest star of the show, however, is 59 Productions’ amazing set and superb projections which while superbly impressive, never overshadow the actors.
The show has a reworked book by director and Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell. It evokes the Northern life and humour very well and is always engaging, particularly when delivered by such a strong set of actors. However, the overall story lacks a true emotional core. Gideon and Meg’s story is interesting, and Jackie and Peggy’s relationship has some nice (if predictable) ups and downs, but neither story packs much of a wallop. The overall narrative of the closure of the shipyard and the community’s battle to save itself offers drama but is limited and the eventual uplifting climax is ultimately hollow. Sting’s songs while good and working extremely well within the context of the show, have a similar problem, and in some cases, the songs actually detract from the drama instead of augmenting it. Happily, there are more than a few tunes which linger in the head after the final curtain including the defiant We’ve Got Now’t Else and Meg’s show-stopping If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.
The Last Ship is an impressive piece of theatre which is extremely entertaining and involving while you watch it but somewhat struggles to stick in the memory. It has gone down a storm in its hometown but as it continues to tour around the UK, only time will tell if this ship can travel.
Runs until 7th April and then touring nationwide | Image: Pamela Raith